Asia Program

It's Time for the U.S. to Reset Relations with India

May 19, 2014

The outcome of India's national election — a resounding triumph for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party — has put the United States in an awkward position.

The BJP's Narendra Modi will soon be India's prime minister. In 2005, Washington revoked his U.S. visa, citing a law banning visits by foreign officials responsible for egregious violations of religious freedom. Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat state, had been accused of not doing enough to stop deadly communal riots in 2002 that left at least 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslims.

Predictably, Washington and New Delhi are abuzz about the implications of the BJP's victory for the U.S.-India relationship, which has suffered in recent months.

Such talk, however, misses a larger point. Despite much giddy rhetoric about a deeper partnership in recent years, U.S.-India relations have suffered for decades — far beyond last December, when the arrest and strip-search of Devyani Khobragade, a New York-based Indian diplomat, plunged relations into deep crisis.

Bilateral ties were abysmal for much of the Cold War era, when India signed a treaty of friendship with Moscow. India's liberalization reforms in the early 1990s ushered in a period of smoother ties, but several decades' worth of mistrust and hostility have lingered.

New Delhi is uncomfortable about Washington's efforts to deepen ties with Pakistan, and each side accuses the other of promoting protectionist policies. More broadly, New Delhi believes the U.S. fails to appreciate India's rising global clout, even as Washington wants India to do more to promote regional stability.

Yet this hasn't stopped the two nations from pursuing deeper ties. In the years following the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke of strategic partnership, and called a 2008 civil nuclear agreement a cornerstone of this closer rapport. Later, President Obama opined that the U.S.-India relationship would be one of the 21st century's defining partnerships.

Such ambitions have fallen short. The much-ballyhooed nuclear accord has amounted to little because U.S. firms believe India provides insufficient liability protection.

Obama has sought to recapture goodwill through symbolic gestures. His first state dinner was for Singh, and in 2010 he endorsed the idea of a permanent Indian seat on the U.N. Security Council. Yet other factors — including the intensified U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan and the Khobragade episode — have stymied efforts to deepen the relationship.

It's time to lower expectations, to start acknowledging the obstacles and stop talking about strategic partnership.

This is not meant to diminish the relationship's importance. Washington would be silly to spurn the world's largest democracy. India and the U.S. share core values and strategic interests (including mutual concern about militancy in Pakistan and the rise of China).

Additionally, the relationship has success stories. These include robust economic relations, maritime cooperation and a 3-million-strong Indian American diaspora.

In fact, a BJP-led government could help reinvigorate U.S.-India ties. Modi has referred to the two nations as natural allies. And with his reputation as a bold economic reformer, Modi is well-qualified to tackle the trade-related tensions in the relationship.

Nonetheless, the visa issue, and Modi's grudge over it, will linger. U.S. officials have suggested that a Prime Minister Modi would experience no problems visiting the United States. Still, to get off on the right foot, Washington should pull out all the ceremonial stops, including a high-level diplomatic visit to New Delhi.

Most important, Washington needs to appoint a new ambassador to India (Nancy Powell resigned this year). It should be a prominent name with unassailable pro-India credentials — in the mold of Nicholas Burns, a top diplomat who negotiated the nuclear accord.

The timing is right for reconciliation. Obama's recent trip to Asia underscored the White House's continued commitment to rebalancing to that region, and by extension to countering China's increasing regional influence, thereby accentuating a core U.S.-India interest. Additionally, the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan creates strategic space to better engage an India that, in recent years, has been victimized by an "AfPak"-dominated U.S strategic lens.

The U.S. and India aren't destined to be strategic partners. Yet they can and should enjoy healthy relations, no matter who is in power.

This article originally appeared in the L.A. Times.

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